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Sony Santa Monica's God of War trilogy comes to an end as Kratos confronts his deepest, darkest fears...
It's taken him three years of preparation, but at long last Kratos is ready to step onto Sony's PS3. His previous trial, God of War II, released at the very end of the PS2's current-gen reign, when Sony Santa Monica was able to pull all the might out of the console in what was arguably the most stunningly presented game of the previous generation's lifecycle. This time around, God of War III follows in the tow of another PS3 exclusive that's demonstrated genre-defining levels of graphical splendour and cinematic flair that set a new benchmark for current-gen machines, and has encouraged the gaming community to reassess what's possible on their home consoles.
In terms of that kind of presentation, God of War III doesn't disappoint from the outset. As is now as customary for a God of War instalment as the cursory sex mini-game, Sony Santa Monica's first level throws Kratos in at the deep end with the most epic, or at least visually ambitious, boss battle of the whole game. Seeing Kratos team up with Titans that are climbing Mount Olympus to topple the reign of Ancient Greece's pantheon of gods is a graphical feast that's hard to best across any platform or genre in gaming today. And this pace in the presentation, from skilfully woven QTE's to a majestic musical score with almost operatic undertones, doesn't relent at any point during the game's 15-odd hours of campaign length.
Neither, indeed, does the gameplay. Despite the departures of figureheads such as David Jaffe and Cory Barlog, Sony Santa Monica's grasp of the Kratos formula is as strong as ever. A wider array of weapons than usual ensures that Kratos is always learning new tricks with exciting new toys, while the enemies on hand to use them against are dialled up at a precisely measured learning curve. New adversaries, requiring a different angle of attack or a specific use of a newly acquired weapon, are consistently on hand to make sure that the action never gets stale. Unlike other titles in its genre, God of War III rarely resorts to lazy spawnfests of enemies as the game wears on simply to up the difficulty level and pad out the experience.
In fact, on the one occasion where Sony Santa Monica does appear to be unimaginatively filling out a room with ridiculous numbers of enemies just to stall players, it actually turns out to be a clever ruse that's specifically designed to lull you into a malaise of brainless button mashing. When you approach the following set-piece (another apparent spawnfest) with the same technique, the game will punish you for hours until you realise that there's a more intelligent solution that had been subtly hinted at much earlier in the game. This kind of gameplay, which forces players to think rather than repetitively button mash, is a hallmark of the God of War series that's always been most strongly exemplified in its puzzles, and this latest instalment is no exception.
God of War III's puzzles aren't so convoluted that you're left frustrated by overly complex solutions, but also not so easy that the answer becomes painfully apparent as soon as you set foot in a puzzle room. Instead, it always seems as if the game is half a step in front of you; enough so that you're never quite sure what the puzzle is ultimately driving at across its various layers, but not so far that you're left wandering around trying to figure out what comes next. Somewhere along the line comes that beautiful eureka moment, and the design is usually so carefully pinned together that we're pretty sure Sony Santa Monica knows precisely when most gamers will twig it. Perhaps that's the lasting legacy of the God of War trilogy's gameplay - it always seems to know what you're thinking.
This has never been more evident than in each game's pacing which, again, is as good in God of War III as it is any other instalment in the series. Whenever frustration starts to creep in at one too many combat set-pieces, the game slows things down by treating you to a nice long puzzle. If you've just been put through a particularly painful boss battle, then Sony Santa Monica might treat you to some exploration across rolling backdrops with vistas so spectacular you could almost cry (of course, you wouldn't cry because you've got your numb-to-all-feeling Kratos hat on). It's this, more than any other facet of the gameplay, that makes God of War such a masterpiece of a trilogy. And the story ain't half bad either...
God of War III satisfyingly pulls together all of the plot threads of its two predecessors (and the PSP spin-off) to form what is, without question, the darkest trilogy in gaming (like The Empire Strikes Back played back-to-back-to-back). Whether it forms the best overall story comes down to a head-to-head duel with the Master Chief and, to be honest, both epics have their merits so we'll let the fanboys fight over that one. One thing's for sure though, gamers won't be disappointed by the ending, which caps off one hell [or should that be Hades? - ed] of a journey with a conclusion that makes Kratos' various sex mini-games over the years look comparatively anti-climactic.
Just like its predecessors though, God of War III isn't quite perfect even though it's oh so close. While there is the opportunity to pick up items throughout your first playthorugh that can only be used in subsequent playthroughs (on a higher difficulty), there isn't quite as much depth to inspire a subsequent replay as you might find in Bayonetta, for example. Admittedly though, the traditional Challenge mode and an unlockable Combat Arena do add a few hours of supplementary entertainment. Also, while the graphics have made a big step up to current-gen consoles, the gameplay does feel very familiar. Granted, it might be the God of War gameplay that we know and love (if it ain't broke then why fix it?), but the game struggles as an original proposition because of this even though it's not without its novelties.